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Resolution 46/1 was adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2021 and is due for renewal in September 2024. It mandates the OHCHR Sri Lanka Accountability Project, which gathers evidence of international crimes for use in future prosecutions, as well as ongoing reporting by OHCHR. Renewing the resolution is vital to ensure that perpetrators of international crimes in Sri Lanka can be held accountable, while maintaining international attention on the ongoing crisis.

Forces on both sides of Sri Lanka’s 1983-2009 civil war committed widespread rights abuses and atrocity crimes. Fifteen years since the total defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, there has been no accountability, while alleged perpetrators on the government side hold high office, and victim communities continue to face ongoing repression and other violations.

Victim families and communities seeking truth and accountability for enforced disappearances and conflict-era killings are subjected to surveillance and harassment by security and intelligence agencies. Tamil communities in the north and east (which were most affected by the war) face an ongoing campaign of “land-grabbing” by government agencies and the army, which is building Buddhist monuments on Hindu temple sites and driving communities from farmland in an apparent attempt to change the demography of the region. At the same time, new legislation threatens the fundamental rights, including freedoms of expression and association, of all Sri Lankans

When the current president, Ranil Wickremasinghe, was prime minister in 2015, he backed HRC resolution 30/1, which was adopted by consensus, committing Sri Lanka to 25 undertakings across a range of rights issues, including establishing a hybrid justice mechanism to address crimes committed during the civil war. Most of those commitments were never fulfilled. The 2019-2022 administration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had been defense secretary at the end of the war, withdrew from the HRC resolution.

Since becoming president in 2022, Wickremesinghe has opposed the HRC process, seeking to end international scrutiny and attempts to ensure accountability. His government’s repression of  victims campaigning for justice, shows that there is currently no political will for a credible domestic accountability process.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis that began in 2022 has plunged millions into poverty. It is widely acknowledged (including by the Supreme Court) that the economic crisis was in large part triggered by corruption, and is part of a larger crisis of misgovernance and impunity. The government has responded by tightening restrictions on civil space across the country. In his March 1 update to the Human Rights Council on the crisis in Sri Lanka, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said he was “concerned by the introduction of new or proposed laws with potentially far-reaching impact on fundamental rights and freedoms … which variously strengthen the executive, grant broad powers to the security forces, and severely restrict rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression, impacting not only on civic space but the business environment.”

Accountability and Justice

In June 2023, President Wickremesinghe announced plans to establish a new truth and reconciliation commission, called the Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation (CTUR), to examine conflict-related rights violations. Six UN special procedures mandate holders said the proposals “appear not to be in compliance with international standards.”

Victims’ and civil society groups said the proposal appeared designed to deflect the attention of the Human Rights Council. They said they had not been properly consulted, and that the new commission would put them at risk of re-traumatization and further threats from security forces.

The government’s ongoing abuses against victims of past violations, their families, and communities, undermined the purported goals of the proposed commission. Those campaigning for truth and accountability were subjected to surveillance and intimidation by the police and intelligence agencies. Events to commemorate Tamil victims of the war were disrupted by the police. Eight special procedures mandate holders criticized the use of counterterrorism legislation  to detain people from a memorialization event in November 2023.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have appointed at least 10 commissions since the 1990s to examine human rights violations and war crimes. They collected extensive testimony from victims and witnesses, but none led to accountability or revealed the fate of the disappeared. Instead, the authorities blocked the few criminal investigations into grave abuses that had made some progress in identifying those responsible and initiating prosecutions. Numerous mass graves, usually discovered accidentally, have not been properly examined to identify the victims or the perpetrators. Three special procedures expressed concern at the authorities handling of a mass grave that was discovered in June 2023,

On May 17, the UN Sri Lanka Accountability Project, established by the Human Rights Council to collect evidence of international crimes for use in future prosecutions, published a report on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. It found that in the 15 years since the end of the war there has been no “tangible progress in realizing victims’ rights” and therefore “there remains a real risk of recurrence.”

The government Office on Missing Persons, set up in 2017 to trace the disappeared, has made almost no progress. An April UN Human Rights Committee report criticized the agency’s appointment of “individuals implicated in past human rights violations” and its “interference in the prosecution of such cases.” Some government officials implicated in alleged crimes remained politically powerful or hold senior official positions

The North and East

In the Tamil majority north and east of Sri Lanka, which was most affected by the civil war, government agencies unlawfully occupied property and religious sites of minority Tamil and Muslim communities. In September 2023, a judge from Mullaitivu district resigned and fled the country after receiving death threats following a ruling he handed down against the Department of Archaeology, which had constructed a Buddhist monument on the site of a Hindu temple.

In a recent instance, eight Tamil Hindu worshippers, detained by police while performing rituals in March 2024, were held for 10 days and allegedly abused. They were arrested at the Veddukkunaari temple near Vavuniya, one of numerous temple sites in northeastern Sri Lanka claimed by nationalist Buddhist monks, frequently with the support of government agencies and the security forces.

Civil Society Space

Restrictions on civic space, which are most intense in the north and east, have continued and perhaps intensified under the presidency of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Tamil activists and victims, including the mothers of the disappeared, are routinely subject to surveillance and harassment.

President Wickremesinghe ended his predecessor’s moratorium on the use of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), using it to detain student activists protesting for economic rights as well as Tamils commemorating war dead. Meanwhile, the Anti-Terrorism Bill currently before parliament, which is supposed to replace the PTA, contains draconian new powers to give the president, police, and military broad scope to detain people without evidence, makes vaguely defined forms of speech a criminal offense, and arbitrarily bans gatherings and organizations without meaningful judicial oversight.

The Online Safety Act, adopted by parliament in January 2024, purportedly provides protections against online harassment, abuse, and fraud. Instead, it is mostly concerned with creating a new Online Safety Commission, appointed by the president, that can decide what online speech is “false” or “harmful,” remove content, restrict and prohibit internet access, and prosecute individuals and organizations. The UN OHCHR said the law “could potentially criminalize nearly all forms of legitimate expression, creating an environment that has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.” Three special procedures mandate holders said “the proposed legislation will give immense powers to [the authorities]… and could be in violation of the basic principles of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and the right to privacy.”

A draft law to regulate non-governmental organizations, circulated by the government in January, could make it impossible for civil society organizations to function freely, despite the critical role of civil society in addressing the worst impacts of the economic crisis, and providing scrutiny that seeks to promote good governance and combat corruption. The bill does not address any evident need, but instead seeks to subject civil society organizations to invasive government scrutiny and interference and threatens civil society members with prison if they do not comply with cumbersome administrative procedures.

A 2023 report on Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Committee described “severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression,” including the excessive use of force by police in dispersing peaceful assemblies, the application of counterterrorism legislation against protesters, and the blocking of public access to social media platforms during mass demonstrations against government policies. A 2023 IMF study of Sri Lanka known as the Governance Diagnostic Assessment stated that “opportunities for public participation and oversight of official behaviour, including by civil society, are increasingly restricted.”

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